Always Given. Never Earned.
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text is the holy gospel from John chapther three.
"Earned. Never Given." Those words caught my eye as I was driving down the road some years back. Pictured on the side of an eighteen-wheeler was a United States Marine Corps sword and the words, "Earned. Never Given." It turns out that hundreds of truckers and trucking companies freely gave the sides of their trucks as advertising space for the Marines. On one side of the truck there are Marines in formation holding rifles; on the other side, the sword.
The message of the advertisement is unmistakable: the Marine Corps sword is "Earned. Never Given." Marines earn their swords through self-discipline and perseverance. The Marines are the only branch of the military that issues swords, so Marine swords are distinctive and are worn with pride, and they symbolize that fine motto: "Earned. Never Given."
And that motto is also a great message to instill in ourselves and our children. Christians are not to have an entitlement mentality, but rather we are to use our lives productively, we are to work hard. Solomon teaches in Ecclesiastes, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might" (Ecclesiastes 9:10). St. Paul wrote, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). So if we are physically and mentally able, we are to earn our keep in this world through our labors, and then we are to use the fruits of our labors to benefit those who really can't earn their daily bread but truly do need help.
But this morning, we have gathered in God's presence not to earn anything but to be given-to; we are here to be given gifts from Christ and His Word; so our theme is, "Always Given. Never Earned." When it comes to our lives before God, everything is "Always Given. Never Earned." St. Paul once asked, "What do you have that you did not receive [from God]?" (1 Corinthians 4:7) The answer, of course, is nothing; everything we have has been given to us by God, not earned. Later on St. Paul would spell this out clearly by saying, "All things are from God" (1 Corinthians 11:12). The only thing we have that God hasn't given us is our sin, and it might be helpful to think about sin not as a "thing" but as a lack—sin is the lack of righteousness and creates an eternal debt we owe to God.
God has given freely and abundantly of Himself by creating the world. Genesis 1:1 doesn't say, "In the beginning, God consulted with scientists and philosophers and they explained to Him how to create the heavens and the earth." Moses tells us plainly, "God created the heavens and the earth." God spoke, and it happened. God creates; we are created. God gives life; we are given to.
But why did God do it? Not because we earned it—we weren't even alive yet! He did it because He is loving and generous, and it is His nature to call into existence the non-existent and give life to that which is not (Romans 4:17). God loves to give. He gave Adam and Eve life and each other and all the plants of the world to eat from—with one notable exception, the tree in the middle of the garden—but how did they respond to His generosity? Instead of being grateful and content with what they had, instead of honoring God by believing His word, they ate of the forbidden fruit and earned death for themselves and their children. So now each of us born into this world is still given life by God, but we also are given through our parents the one thing that God never intended or gave—sin, and its consequence, death. We can thank the devil, not God, for this deadly "gift."
But instead of blaming the devil, we actually tend to blame God for our sinful situation. After the first sin, Adam displayed sinful mankind's marvelous ability to blame the gifts of God for our problems, when he said, "God, the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate" (Genesis 3:12). See, God, it's Your fault that we're in this mess. If You hadn't given me that foolish woman, who gave me the fruit, well I'd still be perfect. It's her fault and Your fault, not mine!
But when Adam and we are called into God's courtroom, we are not given the option of making such excuses. When God sought Adam out in the Garden, He was looking for a full confession of guilt from Adam, not a lame defense of ignorance or deflection of blame to others. God wanted to hear, "I, a poor, miserable sinner…" Yet in spite of Adam's non-confession, God was merciful. He gave Adam and all of us a second chance. He passed over our lame excuses and promised to atone for our sins. God did give us punishment and curses on account of our sin, but most importantly He gave a promise to give the woman an offspring who would crush Satan's head and give new life to mankind (Genesis 3:15). Thousands of years later, John 3:16 summed up this now-fulfilled promise: "For God loved the world this way: he gave his only-begotten Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). God's Son, our Savior, was given to us, not earned by us!
But if you want to get the full meaning of John 3:16, if you want to see how amazingly gracious this passage is, then you need to back up to John 3:14 and 15. The background of these verses is from Numbers 21, when Israel began to grumble against God even though He had given them freedom from Egyptian bondage and bread from heaven. (Hmm…does that attitude sound familiar?) In response to their ingratitude, God sent a plague of fiery serpents to destroy the people. But Moses interceded on behalf of Israel, and God again showed mercy by saying to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live" (Numbers 21:8-9). The serpent had God's Word of promise attached to it: look at this, and you will be saved. And this serpent on a pole pointed forward to Jesus, who said in the words leading up to John 3:16, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:14-16).
In the Bible there is nothing more accursed than a serpent, for Satan had taken the form of that dreadful creature when he brought sin into the world. Yet Jesus says that God shows His love for a sinful, rebellious world this way: by giving His Son on the cross like an accursed serpent, that all who look up to Him and believe be saved from the fiery pit of hell.
By our sin we had earned eternal death, but God decided to give us everlasting life as a free gift. God did not turn His back on the sinful creation when by all rights He could have, but He took the necessary step to redeem it: He made His Son become sin and bear the punishment for that sin in our place, for the salvation of the world. As St. Paul wrote, "God made Christ who participated in no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Or again, St. Paul: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree" (Galatians 3:13).
That is how much God loves us: that He would take our sin into Himself and endure a shameful death on the cross to save us from eternal death. So when the devil accuses you of your sins and you recognize that you have earned everlasting punishment, then look to the accursed Man dying on the cross, and there see the death of your sin and the death of death itself, and believe: He did this for you. Confess, "He did that for me."
And the place where you can always be certain that forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation is yours is in your Baptism, as we heard from Jesus earlier in John 3 when He said that we are born again of God into His Kingdom by water and the Spirit. In Baptism God takes what Jesus did on the cross and applies it to you, giving you new birth as children of God. And Baptism is "Always Given. Never Earned."
Jesus says to Nicodemus: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus doesn't get it, so he responds, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answers, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
Let's take a poll: How many of you earned the right to be born? Or how many of you decided to be born? Did any of you inform your parents about when a good time to conceive would be? Those are ridiculous questions, but they are no more ridiculous than saying, "I decided to be born again on such and such date. I told the Lord that I chose to be born again." Jesus devastates any notion that we contribute anything to becoming Christians; we cannot earn our way into the Kingdom of God by our decision and efforts. The Kingdom of God is always given, never earned. God gives rebirth to us in Holy Baptism, when we are born of water and the Spirit and become Christians.
When the strong name of the Trinity is said alongside the water, "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit", then a person dead in sin is born again and becomes a child of God, as St. Paul writes in Titus 3, "[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life." (Titus 3:5-7) As we confess in the Small Catechism, Baptism is "a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit."
And now that we have been given new life in Christ, the "Always Given. Never Earned." theme does not go away. We don't begin to "earn our keep" in God's kingdom by tithing, or working at church, or by doing evangelism, or by any good works. In God's presence, everything is "Always Given. Never Earned," as Jesus said, "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). We remain 100% given-to our whole lives through, freely forgiven and enlivened by the risen and ascended Christ through His Word and Sacraments. Our joy as Christians is to be given God's mercy in the Word of Jesus. His gift to us is all the words of the New Testament to treasure, especially His gentle, liberating invitations, such as, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). In the forgiveness of all of your sins, given to you in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion, Jesus gives you rest for your souls; He places His easy yoke and light burden upon you, and assures you that His grace is "Always Given. Never Earned."
St. John wrote, "See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are" (1 John 3:1). And so we are. Rejoice, dear children of God, your salvation is certain because your sins have been washed away by the blood of Jesus and the righteousness He earned for you by His perfect life is credited to you; your eternal salvation is "Always Given. Never Earned." In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.